No Matter What the Boss Says About Flex-time, Get to Work Early

Smiling woman holding a large clock.

Max Nisen, May 16, 2014

Flex-time is not as flexible as you might think.

The belief that getting an early start to the day is virtuous is widely held. In fact, finds a forthcoming study, it’s so pervasive that managers rate workers who get an early start higher than those who get in and stay late, no matter how many hours they work in total or how well they do their jobs. And it could explain why other research has found that workers who have flexible schedules have less successful careers.

The study, from researchers at The University of Washington, highlighted at the Harvard Business Review, will be published later this year in the Journal of Applied Psychology. It finds support for the idea that managers have a “morning bias.” In other words, they buy into a common stereotype that leads them to confuse starting time with conscientiousness. They perceive employees who start later as less conscientious, and consequently less hard-working and disciplined, and that carries through to performance ratings.

The researchers surveyed 229 employee/manager pairs—most but not all in the US—looking at when both the employee and the manager got to work, and how the manager rated the employee’s conscientiousness and performance. Start times for the employees ranged from 5am to 9:45am, with the average of 8:42. Even controlling for total time worked and the typical starting times in each workplace, people who started later were rated worse.

In a second experiment, undergraduates from a US university were asked to assume the role of a manager at a fictional company and rate an employee’s job performance. Participants were given identical profiles describing the employee’s performance based on contracts fulfilled, but the time the employee started work was varied. Late start times led to significantly lower ratings, even though productivity and total hours were exactly the same.

This finding is a particular worry for people who work flexible hours. Flex-time is often seen as a perk, letting employees structure their workdays around family or other commitments. But employees who start later, even for a good reason, might be inadvertently hurting their career prospects. And companies that put pressure on employees—even unwittingly—to start earlier are likely to lose a lot of the benefits of allowing flex-time in the first place, such as attracting talented people who might not otherwise be able to work full time, and letting people work when they’re most productive.

The study had one piece of good news for night owls, though. Managers who started later themselves were less likely to show “morning bias” when evaluating employees. So if you’re a late riser, try to work for a late-rising boss.

By Carolyn Schur |

One Comment

  • Interesting article! I have always been a “night owl”. Even as a child, I would be awake until 2-4am, then have to get ready for school a few hours later. I have had jobs, intermittently, that required me to be at my desk by 830am. I can do that, but my brain is not awake until about 2-3pm. My husband and I were having marital strife, and he begged me to switch to “regular hours”. I did that; our marriage still failed and I felt “ripped off”. I am in an occupation that actually pays quite a bit more for night work, and it irks me that when I ask to interview for a new position in the afternoon or evening, I’m rarely offered an opportunity to do so later than 2pm. It’s true that the world is biased in favor of the early birds, and looks down on night owls. I get the impression that people think I’m lazy/untrained/frivolous. Even people that have known me for years still make verbal sideswipes concerning my sleep schedule. My friend who has not worked for over 20 years has the nerve to respond in an exasperated tone when I tell her, “No thanks, I don’t think I’ll be able to go to church with you at 8am.” There also exists a service at noon, but she does not suggest that we attend at that time. If any church would gather at 4pm, that would be perfect. People deliver packages to my doorstep and ring that damn bell all the livelong day. I have thought of getting a “baby sleeping” sign for the front door, but worry about the possible ramifications of someone seeing the sign, and knowing that I have not had a baby for 21 years. I have turned down managerial positions because, as you know, all the managers work days. Important meetings are usually in the morning, and I have never been to a class or potluck that was in the middle of the night. It’s pretty lonely, being a night owl…yet I’m not sure whether I would Want to change myself. I was/am an only child, and wonder if that has anything to do with it.

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